Embrace Conflict, There Is No Collaboration Without It

I was talking about feedback to a C-level of a startup the other day: “Criticism as feedback is a learned skill, but there are ways to warm up people to it“, I said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to call it criticism or negative feedback. It has quite a harsh connotation. I would call it improvement feedback“, he replied.

This is a very open, transparent, and caring company, but not ready to take the word criticism. “We don’t use the world ‘problem’, we prefer ‘challenges‘”, “Let’s call it improvement area, not negative feedback“, “We try to be careful with the language we use here, as people tend to be quite sensitive“. I heard all these in organisations and companies that I admire, with open and inclusive cultures.

Organisations are afraid to “offend” or upset their people, so they make up these absurd rules where negative words are not allowed and they use a corporate, inauthentic language, that changes the company culture. All this boils down to fear of conflict.

Yet, conflict is at the heart of collaboration and cooperation.

Most companies respond to the challenge of improving collaboration in entirely the wrong way. They focus on symptoms (“Sales and delivery do not work together as closely as they should“) rather than on the root cause of failures in cooperation: conflict. The fact is, you can’t improve collaboration until you’ve addressed the issue of conflict.”

HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Collaboration, “Want Collaboration? Accept – and Actively Manage – Conflict. By Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes

Conflict is the focus of this blogpost. I’ll first write about how you handle conflict with Speed B. Leas‘s Discover Your Conflict Management Style, then we jump into Patrick Lencioni‘s fear of conflict as a team dysfunction (from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. A Leadership Fable).

In the end I’ll present ways for organisations to deal with conflict according to HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Collaboration, “What Collaboration? Accept – and Actively Manage – Conflict“, article by Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes.

How do you handle conflict?

Leas theorises that there are different ways to deal with conflict, and each method fits a certain context. Using a method out of its own context will lead to … well, more conflict.

He also devised a questionnaire that can help you identify your “conflict profile“, which shows the methods you naturally use to manage conflict (and master), the ones you can easily learn, and the ones you should start learning to handle, for should you be in that specific context, you will not find your way out without learning and practice.

The six conflict management strategies (or styles) are (1) Persuasion, (2) Compelling or Forcing, (3) Avoiding / Accommodating, (4) Collaborating, (5) Negotiating and (6) Supporting:

1. Persuasion

Trying to persuade the other is attempting to change another’s point of view, way of thinking, feelings, or ideas. You don’t have any intention to change the way you see things though, the expectation of changing or adaptation is placed only on the other person.

How to use persuasion

Here are a few pointers on how to persuade others, according to Leas:

  1. In order to influence the other person to change her view, you need to know what she wants, her interests. So try to meet their needs, the problems they are facing; you respond to their needs rather to their position or solution.
  2. If we are one-sided, the other person will follow. So try to present both sides (yours and the other’s).
  3. People tend to react to the thing they hear last, so keep your favourite viewpoint for last.
  4. Be attractive, not negative, so for something rather than against something. Don’t talk about what you are against, focus on what you are fighting for.
  5. Do not interrupt the other person.
  6. Don’t rush, push, crowd, don’t hurry to make your point. Take your time and ease into your viewpoint.
  7. Cover one point at a time, don’t present plenty of arguments or skip over them. You’ll crowd the other person and it will be impossible for her to be persuaded by your viewpoint.
  8. Come back to your key points, keep repeating them. This is how your viewpoints are captured in the memory of the other person.

When to use it

Even though persuading is the most used (and misused) conflict strategy, it is also inappropriate and the least likely to get you successfully out of conflict.

Persuasion works only if there is high trust between the participants. In a situation of low trust, persuasion will not turn out useful. There are some conditions that make it more likely for you to succeed, according to Leas:

  • the other is unclear about what she wants
  • the other trusts your motives
  • you have prestige and competence in her eyes
  • the others perceives your goals and hers are compatible
  • the other perceives herself to be appreciated or respected by you
  • the other doesn’t have strong needs for independence and self-competence
  • the other doesn’t have strong opinions on the subject.

The success of persuading is also dependent on your desire to change your opinion, accept the other’s, seeing your partner not on opposite side, but on the same side, finding a solution for a common problem.

2. Compelling or Forcing

Compelling implies the use of physical or emotional force, authority, or pressure to oblige or constrain one party to do something another party wants done“, says Leas.

A good example here is a parent that uses her authority to push their kids to do something (e.g. to go to sleep when they jump on the bed in the middle of the night). This is an example of tacit authority. Authority is the most common use of compelling in our daily lives. Doing a certain activity because your managers asked to, even if you don’t agree, is another form of compelling. Authority can be represented also by social pressure, tacit contracts like “We’ve always did things this way“, says Leas.

Compelling can be used also with explicit authority, such as: police officer pulling you off the road and giving you a ticket; a doctor admitting a patient to the hospital.

When to use it

  • Infrequently. If you use it too often, it becomes ineffective.
  • If you are threatened or under attack, to protect what is being threatened.
  • When rights are violated (threats or attacks).
  • When you have tacit or explicit authority to demand compliance.
  • When you call in authority (if you don’t have it yourself).
  • When the other believes you will use your authority.
  • When there is inadequate time to work through the differences.
  • When and where all other means have failed.
  • When one is able to monitor performance.
  • When performance is easily evaluated and can be evaluated promptly.
  • On important, unpopular courses of action.

3. Avoiding / Acommodating

Avoiding conflict (staying away from it) is not really a conflict management technique. There are a few methods to avoid conflict: ignoring the conflict (pretend you don’t see it), fleeing from it (actively removing yourself from the place of conflict) or accommodating the conflict (you go along with the other, you don’t deal with it).

The issue with this conflict management approach is that you don’t change anything through your inaction, so if you’re unhappy with the current status of things, nothing will change (things will continue to be unfair, unjust, or disrespectful).

4. Collaborating

Collaboration means you work together with the other party to find a common solution. It’s considered the best or the only strategy to solve the conflict, but Leas says that, like the other strategies, this technique works only in certain context and under certain conditions.

When collaborating, the parties jointly agree on a problem, rules to solve it, shared interest, look for options for mutual gain, and choose an option or options together.

When to use it

  • Collaborative strategies work when both parties are willing to play by its rules: they are willing to jointly work towards a solution, share all the information needed to reach a mutual beneficial solution, and to stick with the collaborative conflict management method.
  • It should be used when stakes are high, and the costs of not collaborating is higher than directly confronting the issue and trying to work through it together.
  • Collaboration works if there is enough time to solve the problem (it takes a lot of time).
  • Collaboration works if there are enough resources to split between the parties. If there is a resource scarcity, Negotiation might be a better solution (as a party will get less than the other, so it might not be mutually satisfying).
  • Collaboration works for non-dichotomous issues (no yes/no solutions; where there is no space for collaboration really).

5. Negotiating or Bargaining

Negotiating is very similar with Collaboration, the difference being that the expectations are lower for both parties as they enter the conversation. In Negotiation, each party tries to get as much as she can, knowing that she will not get everything they want.

How to negotiate

There are entire books on negotiation, I will only capture here a few principles of a successful negotiation.

  • Negotiation always starts with parties asking more than what they are prepared to settled for, as they get into the room with the expectation to not get everything they want.
  • The information shared by parties is partial, compared with Collaboration where they are expected to share everything. In negotiation, a party will only share what will be of use for her case, and nothing else.
  • Usually, negotiation starts with the smaller issues, the ones that are more likely to reach an agreement, to create optimism and a good relationship between parties.
  • The parties are more likely to have a successful negotiation if they focus on the similarities of their positions versus the differences.
  • Expressing the desire to reach an agreement is also a point for a successful negotiation.
  • Another way to be influential during the process is acknowledging positive points about the other’s position.
  • Presenting your best point last (just as in Persuasion) is also going to make it more likely to be remembered and met by the other.

When to use it

Negotiation is widely known and can be used at all levels. Problems arise when there are non-negotiable issues (just as Collaboration, mutually exclusive solutions can’t be negotiated), the prize can not be divided (as in the famous Solomon’s “splitting baby” story), or there is a power disparity between parties (as one of them might be Compelled to reach a solution rather than reaching it through bargain).

So when can Negotiation be successful:

  • Negotiation can be successful where Compelling or Collaboration failed.
  • Negotiation works when parties are willing to bargain (such as Collaboration, willingness to collaborate is a condition for its success).
  • Negotiation works in cases where both parties have clarity on the situation of the other’s and there is no fear in the mix. If one or both parties don’t feel safe, the process won’t yield successful results.

6. Supporting

The Supporting strategies work based on the assumption that the other party has a problem, and your task is not to take responsibility for it, but to help the other deal with it (without her depending on you or your resources).

In this conflicting situation you are a third party to the actual conflict; one of the conflictual parties asks you to take a side. You can thus help them navigate the conflict with the other person in a healthy manner. It can be seen as an empowering, strengthening, encouraging, emboldening strategy, through which you help the other person deal with their conflict.

When to use it

This strategy works when you are not directly involved in the conflict and it’s not your responsibility to deal with it. You use Supporting when the other person asks for your help.

Now that we have an idea about how to best navigate conflicts (and if you do the test in the book, you know what strategy you are more likely to refer to, and what fits in the context), let’s look at teams and conflict.

Is a team with no conflict “healthy“?

Should a team live with conflicts, avoid them, attack them head on or absolutely have no conflicts and live in a permanent harmony?

I’ve worked with a team that never had conflicts. Each person in the team was quite positive and relaxed, they wouldn’t argue for their ideas (their first mode of dealing with a disagreement would be Collaborating or Avoiding), and our retrospectives were plain positive, focused on improvements but never revealing big problems. As a Scrum Master, I felt I’m not doing things right as I couldn’t put my finger on why this team isn’t high performing. Is it possible to have a team where “things are just going great“?

It turns out it isn’t. Patrick Lencioni theorises that lack of conflict equals fear of conflict: “Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas. Instead, they resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments.

Building great relationships within a team requires productive conflict. Without it, teams don’t grow and don’t innovate, they don’t reach that stage of creativity that builds incredible ideas. Lencioni makes the difference between ideological conflict (between concepts and ideas) and destructive fights (interpersonal politics, destructive fighting, personal attacks). Teams that engage in ideological conflict work to create the best solution in the shortest period of time.

Not addressing the ideological conflict creates more tensions within a team, as people will refrain from expressing their feelings (for fear of hurting the others), so this just increases the tension within the team.

Looking back at my team, there was no conflict because they were not really a team. They had the same skills, and they were managed by a Senior, but they were working on completely different projects, not interacting much and not depending on each other to deliver their work. Ever since, we called these teams guilds, and their retrospectives were more focused on improving their technical skills rather than working together better.

We got some clarity on how to work with conflict at individual level, how it benefits teams (and what no conflict means), next I would like to take a look into how organisations can use conflict to grow high-performing teams.

How can organisations manage conflict?

Executives underestimate not only the inevitability of conflict but also – and this is key – its importance to the organisation.

HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Collaboration, “Want Collaboration? Accept – and Actively Manage – Conflict. By Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes

Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes support the argument that conflicts are the means for creative solutions, and in their absence, more conflicts emerge. They have come up with six effective ways for organisations to constructively manage their conflicts:

1. Devise and implement a common method for resolving conflict.

If you want your people to tackle conflict heads-on, you need to give them the means to deal with it. Knowing what result they should be achieving through conflict and how to get there, people won’t avoid to resolve their conflicts or resort to common ineffective approaches (e.g. persuading or compelling, when the situation is not fit for it).

Using a well-designed conflict resolution process will also reduce waste (of time to figure out solutions for example). The clearer, the more detailed the process, the better.

2. Provide people with criteria for making trade-offs

So now you have a well-defined process to resolve conflict, but what happens when your employees need to make trade-offs between tasks or decide where to put their time and effort? Providing clear criteria to make these decisions is the next step for people to navigate the conflicts in your company.

3. Use escalation of conflict as opportunity for coaching

People tend to let their bosses solve the conflicts, even if the above two points are fulfilled, and managers tend to solve problems for their teams (most management see their job as problem-solving). Solving team problems are lost coaching opportunities: this is the chance for managers to teach their employees how to deal with conflicts and find their own ways to solve them.

Even if the organisation has a clear conflict resolution process, there are clear criteria for trade-offs and managers are coaching their teams through managing conflicts, there are still those conflicts that can’t be solved at team level. When they are escalated and coaching the team through the conflict is not an option, management should solve those issues constructively and efficiently, modelling behaviours they want to see in their team mates.

4. Establish and enforce a requirement of joint escalation

In a regular organisation, teams run into conflicts with other departments, they find no resolution and involve the management into the discussion (presenting them their one-sided opinion of the situation). Management jumps into resolving conflict with one-sided, little context, and the chances for them to reach the best solution are limited from the start.

The best course of action, according to Weiss and Hughes, is to push for resolution bringing together all the involved parties: the managers should encourage their employees to bring the other parties into the conversation and work together through a solution, sharing all the information necessary (from all sides). You probably recognise the patterns for the Collaboration conflict resolution technique.

5. Ensure that managers resolve escalated conflicts directly with their counterparts

In case the above doesn’t work and still the issue is escalated to the management of different departments, the managers themselves should work collaboratively with their counterparts to find a common resolution.

The management should show the same commitment required from the teams, to solve conflicts collaboratively with other departments. Escalated conflict should be resolved by management by involving all interested parties.

6. Make the process for escalated conflict-resolution transparent.

Making the conflict-resolution process transparent implies sharing how decisions are made, how contentious issues are being resolved, especially by management. The information will help the rest of the teams figure out their own conflicts, better understand the trade-off criteria, and make better decisions overall.

Conclusion

Conflict is unavoidable in human relationships (or animal for a fact), so face it head on… but with the right approach, according to the context, if you intend to solve the situation you are in and have your needs met:

  1. Persuasion: when there is trust between parties
  2. Compelling: (Forcing) when you are in a position of authority
  3. Collaborating: when there is enough to share and both parties are open
  4. Negotiating: when parties are willing to bargain
  5. Supporting: when the conflict is not about you
  6. Avoiding: is not really “dealing” with conflict, so your needs will not be met.

I use this framework to help my teams understand that conflict is healthy and to learn how to better handle it. I used the framework for each team member to create their own “conflict profile”, and we discuss around it, sharing strategy to handle conflict and learning better ones. This is an example of my conflict profile (I can handle most of the conflictual strategy, but I have work to do on accommodating conflict; this has been my biggest learning area since arriving in Malaysia, as it’s one of the main cultural gaps in between our countries):

At the team level, identify and foster ideological conflict, to create a highly collaborative, creative environment, where teams work together towards the best solution.

As an organisation, you have to make sure that you have policies that help people navigate conflict, they are transparent and known, and your managers are role models (presenting behaviour that represents these policies).

I hope this is is enough insight for you to do your own research, or to start working with the fear of conflict. Getting rid of it leaves space for true collaboration.

Resources

  1. What Collaboration? Accept – and Actively Manage – Conflict, article by Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes
  2. Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. A Leadership Fable
  3. Speed B. Leas, Discover Your Conflict Management Style

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